While I was at Aldus (now Adobe), we worked with an organizational consultant (Bob Crosby) to improve our organizational effectiveness. One of the better tools that Bob brought to the organization was the Ask and Tell process for transitioning between managers within an organization. Bob had come across this technique while he was consulting to the US Navy. It is standard for the Navy to rotate Captains between naval ships on a relatively frequent basis (every 1-2 years). During one of their organizational effectiveness studies, the HR department noticed a disturbing pattern. For those ships which had high overall effectiveness ratings, every time they switched captains the ship’s effectiveness plummeted on average for six months before returning to their previous high levels. The Navy started a study to understand why.
In summary, what the study found is that every ship’s captain has their own unique leadership style and unaided it takes a while for a ship’s crew to adapt to the new captain and for the captain to adapt to the unique capabilities of each crew. Through experimentation the Navy found that the simplest of processes shortened the performance gap from six months to about two weeks.
The following section provides a little bit of theoretical background and a model for how teams perform at high levels in order to set a context for the Ask and Tell session.
There is a great deal of discussion about team work and team building these days. So much so that the assumption is that everything must be accomplished within a team. The art of teamwork is knowing when to engage in the team process and when to perform as a collection of individual contributors. The short form answer to this is if one person can accomplish the task don’t invoke the overhead of a team. Part of the advance of technology is improving the tools so much that a single person can take on quite involved and complicated tasks with appropriate tools. Teams are most useful for those situations where a single person does not have the capability or capacity to tackle a problem by themselves. A team is useful when a multi-disciplinary approach is needed or when there is a period of high change. The collective wisdom of a group is powerful for making sure that diverse viewpoints are incorporated and for seeing patterns of change that a single discipline might miss.
While there are many situations where teams are useful, there is a clear overhead or cost for working in a team. Those of you who have studied communication theory or played the children’s game of “telephone” know that the longer the chain of communication, the more “noise” is injected into the signal. The most effective communication occurs when the ideas don’t have to leave the brain of an individual. The additional cost of a team versus an individual can be summarized in the three concepts:
- Change Management
While there are a host of technology devices that are useful for communication (electronic mail, the world wide web, Lotus Notes) and coordination (project management tools, Lotus Notes), the challenge for a team is to remember that these tools are not the whole answer. Communication is the results that you get, not the words that you speak. So often we think that if we utter a string of words, that the meaning of those words is clear and that the intended actions will result. Indeed that is true of a team that reaches the performing state, but it is not true of teams that are in the formative stage. Words mean something but almost never the same things to two different people. As we get into more and more abstract concepts or into the realm of creativity where we are trying to bring something into being that never existed before, surrogates and metaphors are the medium of exchange. These surrogates are very difficult to accomplish through the written word or even through illustrations. It is the power of the full communication and presence of the individual that makes the ideas come alive and communication occur.
Coordination requires that tasks be identified, defined, sequenced, and distributed to people with the skills to carry those tasks out. This requires planning and attention. If I’m the only one that is involved in the task I can easily bounce from situation to situation because the context is always with me. The minute someone else is involved it is very non-obvious what I’m doing, let alone why, let alone in a particular sequence. Part of coordination is also being clear about the nature of any communication that is occurring. John Searle as part of his speech-act theory suggests that we be more explicit about what a communication is about. For example, is this document a conversation about possibilities or one that requires action?
Change management is about helping the team participants change the way they behave for the duration of a project or of a task. Change is about understanding how we ourselves go through change and how our team members go through change and how the recipients of our product and services go through change. Fortunately there are well developed bodies of knowledge for each of the three concepts: communication, coordination, and change management.
- Forming – the establishment of identity, purpose, outcomes, and roles
- Storming – the coming to grips with the scope of the task, the capabilities of the individuals, the shared values and the meaning of the roles that each person is expected to perform. This is the start of the change process.
- Norming – acceptance of each person’s role and specificity of the work to be accomplished
- Performing – each person performs in their role to accomplish the desired tasks.
- Mourning (Adjourning, celebrating) – acknowledge completion of the task and affirm the efforts and performance of the team members.
A more complete model that draws on the insights of Kubler-Ross in her seminal work On Death and Dying:
Stages Leader’s Actions
- Forming Goals and Roles
- Denial Confront
- Anger Contain
- Depression Collaborate
- Bargaining Clarify
- Acceptance Catch Winners
- Actualization Celebrate success
- Mourning Acknowledge and affirm
The leader’s job is to keep the team moving through the process. Things to remember:
- Any time a person is added or subtracted to a team, the team starts over at forming.
- Any time roles change or shift, the team starts over at forming.
- People cycle and recycle through the change stages (denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance, and actualization)
- Men and women tend to behave differently, especially with respect to anger/depression.
- It does no one a favor to allow them to stay “stuck” in one stage or another.
- It does no one a favor to allow one team member to “contaminate” their colleagues with their negative feelings.
- This is very hard work and you MUST take extra good care of your mind/body/spirit at the times of high stress during the storming and norming phases.
A more complete description of the change stages is provided by Bob Watt, formerly Deputy Mayor of Seattle, President of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, VP of State and Local Government Relations at Boeing and currently Board Member at Group Health cooperative:
The evidence that an individual or an organization is in denial about the need to undertake a change process can vary dramatically. From the relatively subtle to the remarkably dramatic, the human capacity to face the need to go through a change process by denying that the need exists at all is remarkable. A friend’s father, to cite a relatively dramatic (and personal) example, walked out of an appointment with his radiologist, where he had just been told that his lung cancer had not responded to the radiation therapy and told his family that the tumor was gone. At that moment he fully believed what he had just told us, he was not seeking to “protect “ us from the news. The organization that fails to continuously scan the external environment, work hard at helping it’s people learn new skills and consistently reinvent it’s future via some form of goal setting process, is engaging in a (perhaps) more subtle form of denial about the need to change.
It does no one a favor to leave them in a state of denial when they have to face a change. The change managers job is to plan and carry out a response appropriate to the intensity of the denial involved. The “confrontation” has to be done with great respect and a genuine sense of caring. If the change manager is bearing any anger at the individual or organization that they are seeking to confront, they must shed that anger before the process begins. If they do not shed their own anger, they risk reinforcing the denial. The confrontation can be as “gentle” as hiring a consultant to review the competition and suggest several response options. Or it can be much more direct, such as gathering a group of family and friends together to tell a substance abusing person that they love them, but will no longer tolerate the behavior and they want that person to begin a course of treatment right now!
Timing is important and so are “people” and place issues, but leaving someone in a state of denial, without having made any attempt to confront them, is simply not helpful. An individual or an organization which later discovers that you decided not to help them face something which needed to be faced, is unlikely to be grateful. Denial is a powerful reaction and should not be underestimated. Some individuals/organizations get stuck in this mode and never break out, but the change managers’ job is to try to keep the process moving. Goals set by individuals/organizations in denial often bear astonishingly little relationship to the actual situation. They may be wildly optimistic or just plain “off the mark”.
The feelings of anger that occur when unexpected or unwanted (often the two are the same) change enters a life can be intense. They are a normal, natural (some will argue biological) response to the stress that comes up when facing the unexpected. Generally this anger manifests itself in one of three ways:
- Direct verbal lashings out at other people, often for “reasons” that bear no overt relationship to current events.
- Deep and consistent cynicism and disrespect directed at the people who are perceived to be the “cause” of the need to change, often behind their backs.
- Self destructive, impulsive acts, out of character with prior behavior.
Combinations and permutations of these three basic patterns attest to the variety of human spirit. It should also be pointed out, that some individuals faced with unwanted change react with violence. Change managers must also be aware of this potential and be prepared to protect themselves and their people from this possibility.
Regardless of the nature of the manifestation of the anger, allowing it to persist for a long time is not helpful. People who get stuck in the anger phase of this process are hard on themselves and usually everyone else around them too. Specific to our topic, the evidence is piling up that angry people are expensive people, medically speaking. The toll that child and spousal abuse exact on family members is quite high. Non (physically) abusive people exact a real toll on people too, but they also do much long term harm to their own well-being. When someone is stuck in anger, it is the change managers’ job to work to contain that anger, because the act of containing the anger helps move the person through the process. Containment strategies vary, depending on the nature of the situation and the individuals involved.
Sometimes the anger can be mobilized into productive efforts. A person with an unexpected and unwelcome assignment to a new team often will move quickly out of denial and into a form of anger that focuses his/her attention on “proving” that the reassignment is wrong or inadequate. The change managers’ response is to act as a knowledge navigator, steering the efforts so that the individual conducts a broad-based exploration of the options and does not prematurely or mistakenly foreclose reasonable and effective solutions. This form of containment is very effective in many circumstances. Certainly for an organization, a change manager can sometimes turn the anger aroused by an unwelcome need to change into a dynamic strategy to develop a new understanding of emerging competition so that “we can beat those people at their own game.” When initial attempts to contain the anger into productive outlets fail, it may be necessary to take a more direct approach to the situation.
A fairly common and successful strategy with an individual is to sit the person down for a brief “heart to heart” that might go like this: “You know Bob, I understand that you are really mad about this change. However I think you are stuck and the fact that you are spreading your anger out to so many people is not helping you cope with this change and it sure is not helping them. So from now on, when you feel like saying angry or critical things about the way things are going you will say them directly to me and in private. I will call you once a week and you can tell me everything you are mad about when we talk. If you persist in spreading your angry feelings around to everyone else, I will take further steps to help you better manage your feelings.”
Another useful strategy for someone stuck in anger is to help him or her get involved in a formal change process like psychotherapy. Often people who get stuck in this part of the process have reasons that transcend the current reality. There can be real value in a careful contained expression and exploration of the anger in a psychotherapeutic setting. For some people psychotherapy, with a well trained professional, is the only real option to move from this “stage”. Sometimes group approaches such as anger management classes or groups for abusive spouses or parents can be very helpful and for some individuals the life long 12-step process these groups typically offer is a genuine help.
If the person you are dealing with is an employee, you may need to make an EAP referral, or to actually move into your progressive discipline process to help them get unstuck. Goals set, if any, by an individual/organization at this point in the change process often reflect cynicism or outright hostility. This is a stage where a change manager may have to be very directive in the goals setting process. Participant or employee, efforts to move someone through this part of the process can be difficult, but are essential if they are to have a chance to return to feeling more in control of their life.
An organization stuck in this phase of the change process is truly an unpleasant experience for employees and customers alike. The atmosphere is openly hostile, “war games” are an every day occurrence and little effort is made to set or reach positive goals. Less full blown manifestations of this stage of the process occur frequently in care giving organizations where the workload is crushing and the support for existing personnel is very low. In either case it is best to bring in an outside person to help the organization begin to contain the anger enough to move itself through the process. An “internal” change agent is less likely to be able to maintain effective long term working relationships with their colleagues.
The signals that an individual or an organization is experiencing this part of the process can vary dramatically. Full-blown clinical depression episodes can be triggered by an unexpected need to change. Episodes of sleeplessness, failure to eat, inability to enjoy formerly pleasurable activities, inability to concentrate, increased disorganization and even suicidal thoughts and plans are to be watched for as a signal that a serious clinical depression is underway. Thoughts and feelings of this magnitude need to be attended to by a well-trained mental health professional. New anti-depressant medications are often very helpful to someone in a full blown clinical depression. More commonly, an individual or organization stuck in this part of the process will manifest feelings of powerlessness (“nothing I do really matters”) or hopelessness (“I really don’t see how I can effect the outcome of this situation”). They will also generally demonstrate low energy, increased feelings of isolation, lack written goals and will spend more time on process and less time on outcomes.
Though many change managers find this depressive phase easier to tolerate than anger or denial, leaving an individual or organization in this phase for a long time has serious consequences. Even low-grade depressive episodes take a physical toll on individual health and an organization mired in depression is not just an unpleasant place to work, it is at high risk for mistakes and failures. The manager’s response is to find an important and achievable goal that can be set in collaboration with the individual group experiencing this part of the process. Furthermore the manager needs to be directly involved in the accomplishment of that goal. I mean this quite literally: if it is a group that is stuck in depression, having the manager and team working side by side to achieve something has the potent effect of reducing isolation and increasing people’s feeling that they can be successful if they collaborate on a task. The task could even be extra-organizational like participating in some community service work. Physical exercise has been found to be a useful anti-depressant, so group efforts to walk or run together or work together to clean up a park are a particularly valuable collaboration approach.
When people involved in a change process start to negotiate, it is a very good sign because it means they are starting to try and regain control of the process. They have begun to accept that the change is necessary and they are seeking to put their own unique stamp on the process by finding ways, large and small, to effect the outcome. Whether they are seeking to bargain with Upper Management for a little more time, or to bargain with you as manager for some change in their routine, the meaning of the bargaining is that they are now trying to become a part of the process, because they have started to accept the need to change. It is an important and delicate stage in this process and if the manager is not properly prepared for this moment it is very easy to throw the team or individual back into anger and/or depression.
The preparation needs to be in two dimensions. First the manager has to be in good emotional shape themselves, because if they exhibit their own feelings of anger, frustration or powerlessness now it is a safe bet that the team or client will immediately join those feelings and much damage will be done to the nearly completed process. Second the manager has to be crystal clear BEFORE the bargaining begins what goals need to be reached as part of this change process. This clarity is needed because the bargaining, whether overt and organized (as with a labor union over new working conditions) or subtle and casual in appearance (I’d like to ask you to help me with…) must result in a new set of circumstances that both parties to the negotiation feel are acceptable to them. Negotiations are often about the nature, type, duration and the level of challenge of the goals the individual/organization is about to set. This is a moment when a person’s mind and spirit is more easily engaged in the process. Participant education materials may be utilized at this point as information to assist the negotiation. Regardless of the nature of the negotiation, nothing kills a negotiation more quickly than one side being unclear about it’s goals. So do whatever is necessary (research, consulting experts, asking top management for clarification, seeking advice from an experienced colleague) but be clear about the goals before this stage is reached.
Acceptance Catch people doing things right
The process is not yet done, but there is a definite feeling that progress has occurred. Individuals progressing through the change process will not yet fully “own” their new status, but they are starting to feel less like a victim and more like a survivor. You may hear them say things like: “well I never dreamed I would have to go through all that crap, but I guess I found out who my friends were!” In an organization, the same sorts of feelings are reverberating around the coffeepots and hallways. “ I thought this was a totally bizarre scheme cooked up by top management to make us all look bad, but I’m beginning to think this is not such a bad idea after all.”
At this point in the process the manager is probably a little tired because of all the hard work undertaken to get things this far. In this weary and vulnerable state, it would be very tempting to jump all over those kinds of remarks and even more tempting to try and stomp on some behavior that was an example of the “old bad behavior” (OBB) which was undoubtedly part of the reason that the change was needed in the first place. The care managers job at this point is to absolutely resist the normal and understandable urges to focus (negative) attention on the OBB and to work very hard to (borrowing a phrase from the “one-minute” folks): catch people doing things right.
Think of it this way. The manager has done everything in their power to keep the process moving towards actualization. Things are actually getting there and everyone has some sense that progress has been made. Focusing attention on extinguishing the remaining OBB sends a rather clear, if unintended message that the care manager is paying more attention to the OBB than the fact that there has been tremendous positive progress towards reaching actualization. The real trick here is to keep the process moving towards actualization by sending a clear and important message that the “new right behavior” has been noticed and is very much appreciated. Goals set at this point tend to be clear and relatively easy to accomplish as a reflection of people’s need to feel successful in the new environment they are creating.
This is the state we all aim to be in all of the time. Though, sadly enough, some individuals have never achieved this state even momentarily during their lives. Briefly put: actualization feels good! We feel responsible and in charge. We know where we are going even if we don’t know exactly how we are going to get there. We appreciate how far we’ve come. Our goals are clear and challenging. We do not feel like victims of an uncaring universe, even if we are facing one of life’s most difficult transitions. Instead we have made our “peace” with the need to accomplish this change at this moment and we are ready to see what comes next. We are productive, we view outcomes data (even if the details are disappointing) as a welcome piece of feedback, giving us information to further improve our performance.
We typically feel stronger for the change we have been through, even if we still have some regrets about having to face this change. We have a healthy perspective on the fact that other people may not have completed the change process yet and often we act as guides and supporters for those who have yet to finish the journey we have now completed. This is the point when people move from participation in support groups, to leadership and mentorship roles. Inside an organization any remaining OBB sticks out like a sore thumb and seldom needs management attention, because colleagues will make the intervention. When an individual engages in OBB, their own new perspective on the matter usually causes a rapid realization of what is going on and a self-correction. When that fails to occur a light touch reminder intervention from a friend or the manager usually precludes the full return of the OBB.
The manager who has been helpful in this transition is appropriately fading into the background as the individual or organization takes more and more of their own destiny. However before disappearing from view the manager has one last important job to play in assuring that this change process comes to a useful conclusion. When an individual or an organization has successfully completed the passage through a change process, it is the change manager’s job to insure that there is an appropriate celebration of that fact.
Accomplishing significant change is hard work and it deserves to be celebrated! Individual and organizational cultural issues must be attended to in the process of carrying out this celebration, but a celebration, however small or large, must be accomplished in order to fully prepare the individual or organization for the next change. For distributed teams, the celebration may involve two people shouting “yahoo!” at the same time while on the phone together, or a written letter of “graduation” complete with appropriate celebratory words. For an organization the celebration may be just a pause at the regular meeting to clap and cheer, or it may be a more organized (and expensive) formal celebration complete with food. Too often life’s difficult changes go by without any recognition that the passage has been successfully traversed. If the real goal of organization change is to assist individuals and organizations in moving into a continuous improvement mode (and I for one believe that this is the real goal), then all important changes that lead towards that goal must be recognized, reinforced and enjoyed!
Ask and Tell
Any time there is a large organizational change, it is a signal that an organizational transition is underway. One of the most expensive and challenging changes is when there is a formal leadership change in an organization. This is where the Ask and Tell session is valuable.
The ideal situation for an Ask and Tell session is to have a facilitator who doesn’t know the group very well and who is skilled in the art of asking questions that will draw out even the quietest group and people. The key for the facilitator is to be non-judgmental about the responses from the participants and to record everything on flip chart paper for all to see.
The group should be comprised at the start of the session by the team of direct reports and the new manager. The boss of the new manager should not be present so that there is more of a chance for the group to be open in their comments. There will be an opportunity for the new manager’s boss to participate at the end of the process. Ideally the existing (leaving) manager should not be present. However, I have participated in a process where the old manager has stepped aside and will be reporting to the new manager or there was an acting manager for a long period of time who is now reverting to their old role. In a case where the previous manager is present in the room, the facilitator has the extra burden of drawing out all positive and negative comments about the previous manager while preserving the integrity and dignity of the previous manager.
See the article on Ask and Tell for the steps for facilitating the session and preparing the participants.